First of all, you should know this happened a long time ago when I was at a much lower altitude in my continual climb toward maturity. It was a Sunday evening, and I’m sure I was at least as tired as the people who earlier in the day had sat through my sermon. But tired as I was, I still had to attend the opening session of our District Ministers Retreat. Did I mention I was tired?
At the end of what proved to be a good, even powerful, program, our convener suggested we end our time together by gathering in a circle, joining hands, and praying. Seemed an appropriate thing to do. So we joined hands and bowed our heads.
To my left in that circle of pastors was my boss, the district superintendent Phil DeMore, and to my right was Mike Long, now the respected senior pastor of one of our great churches, Roswell UMC. After all these years, I believe they deserve to be outed.
So, the prayer was moving along beautifully, and the mood was reverent and peaceful. Our convener had already prayed, and now we were moving through a series of “sentence prayers” offered by others in the circle. Between voices, there was a brief silence. Holy silence. One of those wonderful retreat moments you always hear about. We were one in that circle, brothers and sisters in ministry, souls united in prayer.
Then someone’s stomach growled. Loudly.
But that’s no problem because we’re adults; we’re ministers of the gospel; and I was fine, really … until the Rev. Dr. Mike Long, now senior pastor of one of our great churches, began to shake violently, sending a powerful tremor through my right hand. He also began to hiss—the unmistakable sound of an immature person trying to stifle laughter.
I lost it. I don’t know why—did I mention I was tired?—but I lost it, and there was no turning back. I, too, began to shake uncontrollably and soon enough so did my boss, Phil DeMore, to my left. There we were, three ministers of the gospel, mid-prayer, struggling with all our might to avoid one of those awful nasal snorts.
I began to sweat profusely, tears rolling down my cheeks, and I was pretty sure I was seconds away from a cerebral hemorrhage. This was the longest prayer I had ever experienced. I tried to think of my puppy, Boomer, who when I was in second grade had been run over by W.R. Green’s Georgia Power truck, and that actually helped for a second until I realized I was thinking about my late puppy Boomer during a prayer at a ministers retreat. Then I was ready to explode again. Have you ever seen one of those war movies about a submarine forced to an unusually dangerous depth as explosives rained down? Bolts and seams begin to rupture. That was me.
And on either side of me, lending pastoral support, were two quivering puddles of humanity who dared to call themselves ordained clergy.
Silly stuff, childish. And yet, when it was all over, in spite of having done something that would have landed my kids in time-out, I felt surprisingly good—refreshed and alive. How could that be?
The great 20th century theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, once wrote that “Humor is the prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer.” OK, maybe in our case it was the END of prayer, but still I think he was onto something. Sometimes we need a good laugh, a really good laugh from the depths of our spleens, uncontrollable and silly, to blow the soot out of our souls.
Had you stumbled upon that room that night long ago and seen three responsible, educated, ordained clergy holding hands, heads bowed, weeping, you might have assumed you were witnessing a powerful spiritual experience.